Saturday, April 26, 2014

"Only Believe" - Jesus, the Little Girl and the Woman with the Issue of Blood

This double story appears in three of the four gospels.  Matthew's version (Matt. 9:18-26) is an abbreviated version.  Luke's version (Luke 8:40-56) and Mark's (Mark 5:21-43) are similar, but I will print Mark's here as it shows the most detail:
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them,“Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
Two females, one the privileged daughter of a prominent synagogue leader, the other an impoverished and ill woman who had spent all her money on doctors and whose impurity made her an outcast among her people.  The privileged girl takes no active part in the story; she is ill, and later she dies. When Jesus touches and speaks to her, she rises and is given back to her parents.  In keeping with the propriety of the day, the man to whom the girl belongs-- in this case, her father-- acts for her in public places.  Thus it is not just the girl who is juxtaposed to the hemorrhaging woman, but the girl's respected and influential father.

The woman, however, has no man to act for her.  She has been ritually unclean for so long that it is likely her husband divorced her long ago (see Lev. 18:19).  Where Jairus is at the center of the religious community, this woman has long been outcast from it. Jairus boldly and publicly calls on Jesus for aid on his daughter's behalf.  The woman must take action for herself, but she dares not do it openly. As I have shown earlier in this "Jesus and Women" series, respectable women did not cry out after rabbis on public streets.  Furthermore, unclean women were not supposed to push through crowds of people, as this article on Jewish Laws on Women's Purity in Jesus' Day explains:
According to the Bible, a woman is impure for seven days from the beginning of her menstrual flow (Lev. 12:2; 15:19). Anyone who touches a menstruous woman becomes unclean until evening (Lev. 15:19). Whoever touches her bed or anything she sits on during the week is unclean until evening and must wash his clothes and bathe with water (vss. 20-23). . .
Josephus states that women during the menstrual period were not permitted in any of the courts of the Temple (Against Apion 2:103-104; War 5:227). The social separation of women during their menses is further emphasized in the Talmud.
WomenintheBible.Net provides more detail:
Strictly speaking, she should not have been among other people. According to the laws of ritual purity, she should have been at home during her menstrual period, living quietly (see Leviticus 15:19-31). These laws worked very well for healthy women who had a menstrual period of five – seven days. It was a time out for them, when they were relieved of their normal duties and could rest.

But the woman in this story was not healthy. Her menstrual flow had lasted twelve years, so the purity laws had become an impossible burden for her. She could not go out, she could not touch members of her family, she could not enjoy a normal life, and she was constantly debilitated.
Jairus' daughter has been alive for roughly the same amount of time as the woman has been suffering: twelve years.  Twelve is a number representing completeness in the Bible; it is when a child comes of age, and here it brings a crisis and a turning point for both the young girl and the older woman. Though the two do not meet, their lives are intertwined by these events and by the way their narratives are told as an intercalcation.

This Biblewise article explains "intercalcation" as "a literary technique used by the gospel writers to enhance both stories, providing larger insights and lessons. The 'story within a story' is called an intercalation or a 'sandwiched' story."  The article's detailed comparisons are worth noting:
It becomes clear when they are told together that they belong together. There are too many verbal links to suggest otherwise. The daughter was twelve years old and on the brink of her womanhood. The woman had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and had become unclean and cast off because of her womanhood. The disparity in status and stature of the main characters cannot be overlooked. They are exact opposites. One was important and influential, a ruler in the synagogue; the other was an outcast with no standing in the community. Jairus was named; the woman was not. He had a family, a place in society; the woman had “lost all that she had.” (She’s probably homeless.) But there are some similarities, too. They both humbled themselves by falling at Jesus’ feet. They both had a great need. Jairus asked that Jesus come and lay his hands on his daughter; the woman wanted but to touch his clothes. They both believed that Jesus was the one to help them, but they came from opposite ends of the social spectrum. . . . 
Mark's version is significant not least because it gives us a very unusual glimpse into the inner life of this woman.  She thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed" -- and then she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.  In every way the reader is encouraged to see this woman, this silent social outcast, as a feeling, thinking human being.  Desperate for healing but mindful of the social mores, she intends to slip in and out of Jesus' life unnoticed by anyone.  In the process she becomes the only person who obtains healing outside of Christ's voluntary will.  The agency in her story is not His, but hers.

But when He feels power go out of Him, Jesus is determined to see and hear the invisible, voiceless recipient.  At this point the woman seems to become afraid that she has been too bold, but she is also brave.  She doesn't slip away in the crowd, but comes to Him and confesses.  "Daughter," He tells her (did she find it odd to be called so by a man who was at least her own age, if not younger than she?) "your faith has healed you."  The respect He gives her is as plain as His compassion.

During this exchange, the powerful and influential synagogue leader has had to stand and wait.  And while he waits, time runs out for his little girl.  He must have felt a kind of despairing impatience, waiting for Jesus to be finished with this interruption, but the texts do not record him as protesting.  If he thought his problem was more important than that of this lowly woman (who, though suffering, was not at the brink of death as his child was!) he doesn't say so.  I sincerely think I could not have been so patient in his place.

And it seems he's going to lose out because of it.  A messenger approaches to say it's too late.  His daughter has already died.

Jesus now allows Jairus' problem to interrupt his final interchange with the healed woman.  He is still speaking to her when the messenger comes, but He stops to hear what the messenger will say.  Then, with the same compassion He showed the woman, He tells the bereaved father not to be afraid, but only to believe.  And then He raises his daughter from the dead.

The Biblewise article interprets it like this:
In putting the stories together, Mark shows that there is no limit to the good that God can do. One is not healed at the expense of another. Those choices do not have to be made -- either/or, one wins/the other loses. Jesus demonstrated that God is present and caring for everyone – rich or poor. One is not more important than the other.
Most of us tend to err on one side or the other-- we give more weight to the concerns of the privileged and powerful, or we tend to despise them for their privilege while we focus on the marginalized.  But a sick child is a sick child, a bereaved father is a bereaved father, and a suffering woman is a suffering woman-- alike in their humanity no matter who they are. Jesus saw and cared about all three.

Now that she has died, Jairus' daughter is also unclean, and anyone who touched her would become unclean (Numbers 19:11), just as anyone who touched the hemorrhaging woman would become unclean.  Paula Fredricksen's article on Boston University's religion page shows that in general, Jesus as a practicing Jew would have followed the purity laws, and that the purity laws were about ritual cleanness for the worship of God; they were different from the moral laws about sin.  Being or becoming ritually unclean was not about sin, and of course people naturally incurred ritual uncleanness (through marital sex, childbirth, funerals and the like) in the course of their lives.  But uncleanness was something you'd generally incur through contact with family members and close friends; you didn't want to have to go to the time and trouble of undergoing a cleansing ritual for a stranger.

Jesus, however, touched unclean strangers frequently, in order to heal them.  And as David deSilva points out in his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity (pp. 284-285), something astonishing happened when Jesus touched an unclean person: rather than their uncleanness being transferred to Him, the person was healed by Him, thus becoming free of the source of the uncleanness:
The leper is perpetually unclean, but Jesus nevertheless touches him and makes him clean. . . The Gospels thus present Jesus encountering a stream of ritually impure and potentially polluting people, but in the encounter their contagion does not defile Jesus; rather his holiness purges their pollution, renders them clean and integrates them again into the mainstream of Jewish society where they can reclaim their birthright, as it were, among the people of God. 
The hemorrhaging woman and the dead daughter of Jairus thus both encounter Christ from the same place, regardless of the disparity in their social positions.  Both are unclean and thus outside of society.  Jesus' touching the girl and being touched by the woman restores both to the community. The purity laws, Jesus seems to be implying, should not be used as a justification for creating outcasts.

David deSilva elaborates:
Jesus' healings of the diseased and encounters with 'sinners' are immersed in issues of purity rules and pollution taboos in which we see Jesus consistently showing a willingness to cross the lines in order to bring the unclean ones back to a state of cleanness and integration into the community. . . [W]hen Pharisees, who seek to preserve purity through defensive strategies (abstaining from contact with the unclean or potentially unclean), challenge his eating with sinners and thus inviting pollution, he quotes Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice". . . The holiness God seeks, according to Jesus' understanding, entails reaching out in love and compassion. . . .
Mercy trumps sacrifice because (as I mentioned a few posts ago) people are more important than things.  The Christian faith as Jesus taught it was about inclusion not exclusion, not about keeping "pure" through ostracizing others, but about reaching out to others in love.  As Fred Clark at Slacktivist pointed out this week, if the end result was that we as Gentiles could be included in the people of God, who are we Gentiles to turn around and exclude one another? 

Jesus showed us the way through this story of a sick child, a desperate father and an I've-got-nothing-left-to-lose woman.  He didn't treat people as better-than or less-than.  He treated them all as people.  He didn't do us-vs.-them.  He only did "us."  And no one escaped His notice-- not even a woman who tried her best to do so. 

Christianity should be about going and doing likewise. 


Unknown said...

I had never heard of an "intercalcation" before. Thanks for shedding light on the connection between the story of Jairus' daughter and the unclean woman.

Thanks for teaching me something new.

Keri Wyatt Kent said...

Great post. I've taught on this passage before, which is one of my favorites, but you gave some great new insights.